LAS VEGAS — Anthony Lynn cracks open a can of Coca-Cola. “I’m not sure what to do with myself right now,” he admits.
The first rule of a commencement ceremony is arrive early, but idleness is not a familiar feeling for the Chargers head coach. Usually every minute of his day is planned out—that’s how he got here, after all. Now, he’s with his family in the green room of UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, and there’s still 58 minutes to go before the Saturday afternoon ceremony is supposed to begin.
His son, D’Anton, an assistant DBs coach for the Texans, FaceTimes from Houston, eager for a peek at dad in his graduation garb. He’ll have to call back. Lynn’s bright red cap and gown are still waiting in a drycleaner’s bag labeled “A.Lynn,” just like the spine on his playbook.
When it’s finally time to get dressed, Lynn peers into a full-length mirror, adjusting a cap that feels two sizes too small and a silver graduation stole marking the UNLV Class of 2018. Last spring, when he quietly enrolled to complete his college degree nearly 30 years after he started it, he wasn’t interested in the pomp and circumstance. Now, he’s 49 and about to walk across the stage—and, come to think of it, where exactly is he supposed to walk? Just as he tells himself he can’t believe he’s doing this, university president Len Jessup walks into the dressing room.
“I don’t think anyone has a busier schedule than you do,” Jessup says. “If you can do it, anybody can do it. It’s a great example.”
“Let’s go do this, Mr. President,” Lynn replies.
Twenty-six hours earlier, Lynn was standing on a practice field in Costa Mesa, Calif., in a navy blue sweatsuit, taking a team picture with the Los Angeles Chargers’ 2018 rookie class. When he broke down the huddle, he told them he’d be missing the final two days of mini-camp. “I have some unfinished business to handle this weekend,” he explained.
Lynn had suggested moving rookie camp one week earlier so he wouldn’t miss any time. But Chargers owner Dean Spanos and GM Tom Telesco had encouraged him to keep it as is—explaining to the rookies why he’d be gone, they told him, was a stronger message than any he could give on the practice field. Spanos offered to take Lynn, his wife and daughter on a private jet to Las Vegas Friday evening, right after the rookies’ afternoon walk-through.
So Lynn shared with the rookies the story he’d told his veterans last month, on the first day of the offseason program. Lynn entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech in 1992, guaranteed neither a roster spot nor a chance to earn one. When he signed with the Broncos in 1993, he explained to a coach that he was just six credits shy of his bachelor’s degree in exercise and sport science, and he wanted to go back. “If you are not here for these offseason workouts,” Lynn was told, “you’re not going to make the team.”
Online classes weren’t an option in the early 90s; Lynn would have had to be on campus in Lubbock, Texas, for his final credits. A few years later, when he was an established locker-room leader on the Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl teams, he again looked into going back. But his degree plan had changed, and the six credits he needed to graduate had turned into 18. Lynn’s message to his players: Don’t be like me, 49 years old and going back to school. Finish your degree now.
“I’m excited, because I actually have 12 more credits,” safety Derwin James, the Chargers’ first-round pick, said as he walked off the field. “He inspired me to go get mine right away and not wait.”
Over the last quarter-century, not having his degree nagged at Lynn. He didn’t need it to coach in the NFL—it didn’t come up in a single job interview. But while he’d been the first member of his family to enroll in college, he had not been the first to finish. Both of Lynn’s children, son D’Anton and daughter Danielle, completed their bachelor’s degrees. Danielle will walk again next weekend, earning her master’s in health administration from the University of North Texas. His father's three younger children, Lynn’s half-siblings, received their degrees, too. As happens for so many people, he says, “there was always something.” He had two small kids. He had a successful off-field construction business. He was building a coaching career.
In 2014, when Lynn was the running backs coach for the Jets, he got a nudge from one of his peers. He was sitting in the office of the team’s director of player development, Dave Szott, along with Szott’s wife, Andrea. Szott, a former NFL offensive lineman, had returned to finish his degree at Penn State 11 years later. “Coach,” Andrea said, “you’ve gotta get this done. There’s no excuses.”
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After that talk with Szott, Lynn interviewed for seven head coaching jobs in a three-year span. Finally, he told himself, “I can’t keep counting on someone hiring me to be a head coach before I get my damn degree.”
Lynn only has three rules for his players: No. 1, Protect the team. No. 2, No excuses. No. 3, Be on time. He decided it was time for him to follow his second rule. The same year he was hired to his first head-coaching job, it turned out, was the year he decided to re-enroll. The Chargers were still practicing in San Diego; Lynn would do football work in his office until 8 p.m. Then, he’d grab a warm turkey and ham sub with mayo at the sandwich shop up the road and return to his hotel to study for the rest of the night. His wife, Stacey, was back in New York where she works as a news anchor, and his kids were grown, so his personal life was mainly books. He’d spend his weekends studying at Starbucks. He used to order lattes with honey in the bottom, but he was drinking so many that he switched to cappuccinos. “A little bit lighter in calories,” he explains.
Lynn’s former coaching colleague with the Jets and Bills, Dennis Thurman, was also going back for his degree. He connected Lynn with Janice Henry, a former football academic adviser at UNLV who now runs a consulting service that works with former athletes returning to school, helping them transfer past credits and chart a game plan. Lynn had hoped to finish at Texas Tech, but UNLV offered the most convenient option, with its proximity to his new job in California and a flexible curriculum for non-traditional students. More than 100 hours transferred from his years in Lubbock, fitting into UNLV’s interdisciplinary studies degree program, but Lynn still needed to complete 30 credit hours at UNLV to graduate.
If I start now, he told himself, maybe I’ll graduate by the time I’m 60. But he found ways to work ahead and maximize the time he had away from football. Last summer, he took a courseload of 13 credits, including an introductory interdisciplinary studies class, a public health course and a sociology class that focused on race and ethnic relations in America. During the five-week break between the team’s June mini-camp and the start of training camp, he worked ahead on an independent study and online classes offered during the fall, knowing that his focus would be on football when the season started. This spring, he scheduled four visits to the UNLV campus for his senior capstone project in between the key dates in the NFL calendar—combine, league meetings, free agency, draft.
Lynn kept his coursework quiet, telling only a handful of people how he was spending his free time. In some of his classes, he registered as A. Ray Lynn, in the hopes of maintaining some measure of anonymity. “I didn’t want anybody to know,” Lynn says. “A part of me is like, ‘What’s so admirable about a 49-year-old getting a degree?’ I’m a little bit embarrassed. I should have been a 22-year-old getting this degree.”
Telesco found out about a month ago, when Lynn casually mentioned that his graduation might conflict with rookie mini-camp. Telesco’s first reaction: Graduation? His second reaction: “I’m damn proud you’re our head coach.”
Four days before Lynn walked across the stage in his cap and gown, he stood in front of a room of 15 UNLV faculty members and students. Lynn had taken a late-afternoon flight from Orange County and come straight to campus. He was presenting his capstone project at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday, a non-traditional time of day for a non-traditional student. His 40-page project was entitled, “Sustaining Elite Athletes’ Positive Mental Health Post Career.”
Lynn may have felt like a fish out of water on graduation day, a 49-year-old lining up in a gym amongst fellow graduates who were younger than his own children. But here, he was in his element, commanding a classroom like a meeting room or press conference, citing research describing an athlete’s retirement as a “social death” or an “identity foreclosure.” It was something that he once faced, and that all 90 players in his locker room will one day face, too. He’d interviewed six former athletes, some struggling with divorce or addiction, about how the loss of identity had affected their mental health and life satisfaction—and how to guard against that before their careers are over.
“I don’t know if Anthony told you this,” says UNLV associate professor Mark Padoongpatt, “but he is kind of a nerd.”
Lynn was Padoongpatt’s student for both an intro interdisciplinary studies course and his capstone project. A Los Angeles native who identifies as a Rams fan, Padoongpatt quickly found common ground with the Chargers head coach—a shared curiosity for learning and figuring out solutions to problems, whether in game-planning or through research.
“I was glad that Anthony tapped into that,” Padoongpatt says. “We know that there are some talking heads out there who say that athletes should ‘shut up and dribble,’ but no, we should want to live in a world where people are more aware of the world around them and more than what they do. I love the fact that Anthony was able to be an example for his players, of being more than a football mind, and following his intellectual curiosities and passions.”
Padoongpatt said a powerful part of Lynn’s presentation was when he talked about how finding an outside hobby or business venture may help athletes perform better. That had been Lynn’s own experience during his playing career. Back-to-back seasons, 1994 and ’95, had ended prematurely with the same injury but on different sides of the body—a broken leg and two torn ankle ligaments. Not by choice, he began to consider life after football and started a commercial building maintenance company, and then a home construction company. He began earning more money off the field than he earned on it, and when he played four more seasons, they were among his best.
“What I realized was the better I did off the field, the better I did on the field,” Lynn says. “I was going to work and I was enjoying football again; it was a game again. I didn’t fret over every drop, every fumble. It hurt me because it hurt the team, but I got over it more quickly, and that’s the most important thing. You’re going to make mistakes, but it’s how quickly do you get over it and get onto the next game? Having that security freed me up a little bit.”
On the first day of the offseason program, the same day he told his players about graduation, he gave them an assignment: Think of three things you would do for free. “Your passion lies in there somewhere,” he told them. He encouraged them pursue those interests in the offseason, when they have the time to do so. Take a class, job shadow, or get an internship, he suggested.
The offseason workout rules allow for plenty of time to do that, and some players already are. Running back Austin Ekeler, who joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent last year, missed a couple weeks of the voluntary offseason program this year to complete his business administration degree back on campus at Western State Colorado University. Tight end Hunter Henry, who came out of Arkansas early in 2015, took two classes online during the spring semester. While it’s one thing to encourage players to go back to school, it’s another thing to be able to hold up the example of your head coach having made time to do it himself.
Earlier this month, Lynn was at the NFL league office in New York for two days of meetings about player safety and rule changes. During a quiet moment, he mentioned the research he’d done for his capstone project to former NFL player Troy Vincent, the league’s EVP of football operations. Vincent wanted to sit down and talk about it further. The NFL and the players’ union offer more resources than ever to help players transition out of the game. Yet, in an old-school NFL, encouraging interests outside of football is still somewhat counter-culture.
“For years, we’ve been expecting players to be single-minded and focused on one thing, because it creates less distractions and it seems like a player is more committed,” Lynn says. “But I don’t think we’re giving these guys enough credit. They can start planning for life after football and start tying their identity to something other than football, so they’ll be much better off after their careers end. And a lot of people might be surprised that we’ll find better players because of it.”
Saturday morning, on the 31st floor of the Four Seasons Hotel, it was time for an early Mother’s Day Brunch. The table was set for eight, and at the center, the person to whom Lynn’s graduation meant the most.
Betty Jackson had never been to Vegas before, but her two bad knees be damned—she was going to watch her son walk across the stage. Over the last 30 years, she’d never said a word to her son about finishing his degree. Lynn had been helping support their family since he took a construction job at age 13, working after school and during summers framing sheet rock, pouring cement and tarring roofs. Afterward, he’d lay his paycheck on the mattress proudly, helping his mom make ends meet. Since then, she knew he’d always find a way to take care of his family.
Back in the early 2000s, when Lynn was the running backs coach for Jacksonville, he’d told his mom of his dream to become a head coach. She patiently waited for that to happen. She patiently waited for his graduation day, too.
“The length of time, it don’t even exist,” Betty says. “It’s just a feeling I have, knowing he did it.”
The one who had prodded Lynn was his younger sister, Tabitha. The two of them were just 18 months apart and thick as thieves; when Tabitha’s junior prom date backed out the day of, Anthony secretly went to his house, informing him that he would be picking up Tabitha that night at 7 p.m. Sure enough, he was at their door at 7. Tabitha moved her family to Colorado during Lynn’s last few seasons with the Broncos, her husband working for Anthony’s construction company.
On May 8, 2000, Tabitha was driving back to Denver from a wedding in Dallas with her family when their car hit a wet spot on Interstate 25 and she lost control. She died instantly; her husband, son and daughter were seriously injured. “My son, he had promised her things,” Betty says. “They got together and promised each other things they would do. He promised her he would finish his degree, and he would help take care of her kids. That’s what’s making me so emotional today.”
Tabitha’s daughter, Martavius, was in Las Vegas for the graduation, a few days after the 18th anniversary of her mother’s death. Lynn has long been trying to encourage Tabitha’s son, Charles, to attend college. “Maybe after this,” Lynn says, “maybe it will help.”
Sixteen hundred graduates are being hustled down a tunnel. At the bottom, a UNLV staffer is herding traffic and yelling out instructions. She breaks her cadence only once, upon spotting a well-known face who is a head taller, and a few decades older, than many of his fellow graduates.
“Gowns closed! Tassels to the right! Go Chargers!”
The much-anticipated walk across stage lasts no more than 10 seconds. Lynn hands over his name card and waits to hear it called. When it is, Box No. 19, the suite reserved by Spanos for a Chargers contingent and Lynn’s family, screams as loud as it can before the next name is announced. Lynn shakes the hand of the university president and descends a staircase to head back to his folding chair.
“You didn’t have a whole lot of time to take it in,” Lynn says. But that is O.K. It was about more than him, about more than one moment.
The graduates move their tassels from right to left. And with that, a journey three decades in the making is complete.
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